JONESVILLE — Courtney Kemp was getting dressed for work when husband Wyatt walked in and sat down, not saying a word. Something was clearly weighing heavily on him.
She knew that things hadn’t been going well on the job, but Wyatt never wanted to trouble her with details. They’d talked often about the risks of working on an oil rig 41 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico; Wyatt had always insisted that the most dangerous part was the helicopter ride to the Deepwater Horizon. In just a few days, the 27-year-old derrickhand would be leaving for his next three-week hitch.
Courtney asked what was wrong.
“I just want you to know that if something happened to me, especially if the girls are young, that I want you to remarry,” he told her. “I don’t want you to be by yourself. And I don’t want the girls to grow up without somebody to be their father.”
She was caught completely off-guard. “Nothing’s going to happen to you,” she insisted. “If something did, I wouldn’t be able to get over it. I don’t know how I would go on.” And she began to cry.
Wyatt stood up and pulled her into an embrace.
“It’s all going to be OK,” he assured her.
In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana, the Gulf has shown remarkable resilience. So, too, have the families of the 11 men who died in the disaster. But the shockwaves of April 20, 2010, continue to send out ripples across the gulf of time.
Children too young to have any real memories of their fathers ask to hear stories and make pilgrimages to empty graves. The family of one victim recently celebrated the birth of his first grandchild; the mother of another is still coming to grips with the bitter fact that her youngest son will never give her grandkids.
These survivors are doing their best to balance the memory of the men they loved and the reality that each of their own lives is an ongoing journey.
Consider the road traveled by a now-31-year-old widow named Courtney in this sleepy Louisiana river town.
Courtney Carpenter and Roy Wyatt Kemp began dating during their sophomore year of high school. By the spring of 2010, they’d been together nearly half their lives.
“A lot of people said we grew up together,” she says.
As a teenager, Wyatt had been baptized in a Colorado creek during a youth trip. But his parents weren’t regular churchgoers, and Wyatt began worshipping with Courtney’s family at Pleasant Grove Baptist, just outside this city of 2,300, where the tallest structure is a water tower.
Shortly after graduation, they married and moved away. But after just a couple of years, they were drawn back to Jonesville, and to their comfortable old church.
Wyatt found a job as a roustabout on a land-based oil rig, later making the jump to the Deepwater Horizon, the “pride of the Transocean fleet.” Courtney worked as an investigator for the state department of social services. After two years in her parents’ “mother-in-law suite,” during which their daughter, Kaylee was born, the couple built a home of their own amid the ironing board-flat pastures outside town. In late January 2010, their second daughter, Maddison, was born.
Church remained central to them. The Sunday before he left for his last hitch on the rig, Wyatt answered the pastor’s invitation to approach the altar. Later that afternoon, back at home, Courtney asked if everything was OK.
“Everyone needs prayer at some time or another,” Wyatt said simply. They left it at that.
Around noon on April 20, Wyatt called from the Deepwater’s tower. He was due home the next day. They were short-handed, he said, and it would be a busy shift. He said there’d been some problems but, as always, didn’t elaborate — saying instead that he was just ready to come home. Kaylee’s third birthday was on the 17th, but they were postponing the party until Daddy could be there.
“Kiss the girls for me and tell them I love them,” he told his wife. “I love you. And I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”
At 4:30 the next morning, Courtney was jolted awake by the telephone. A woman from Transocean said there had been an accident on the Deepwater, and that the Coast Guard was evacuating the rig. Was Wyatt OK? The woman said she didn’t know.
Transocean set up a hotline for the families. Courtney called it every hour. At one point, someone at the switchboard told her that all the men had been found, and all were alive. Jubilation broke out in the house.
The next time the phone rang, Courtney was sure it was Wyatt. She soon learned that the earlier report was false.
The couple’s pastor, Craig James, was at the house when Courtney learned that Wyatt was dead. He sat down before the crying widow and asked if she remembered the altar call.
“Wyatt told me that he wanted to be so close to God that he couldn’t get any closer,” the pastor said.
Suddenly, the tears stopped. She asked James to repeat the words, and he did.
“He got his wish,” she said.
‘11 men get lost’
The 11 victims had lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Besides Wyatt Kemp, they were Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Ray Curtis, Gordon Jones, Karl Kleppinger Jr., Keith Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto and Adam Weise.
As scientists continue to debate the disaster’s long-term effects on the Gulf, and as parties still battle over blame and monetary damages, survivors like Eilleen Jones wonder if anyone remembers her son Gordon and the others.
“I just feel like 11 men get lost in the oil,” Jones says.
Shelley Anderson still sometimes slips into the present tense when speaking of her husband, Jason. “He’s the most amazing person in the whole world,” she says of the man who lured her out on her first date with roses and candy, then sealed the deal with raw oysters and chocolate-covered strawberries. “He’s my life.”
Raising their two children in Midland, Texas, Anderson says she can’t imagine opening her heart to another man. For her and for other widows, the lack of a body to bury remains deeply painful.
At 22, Shane Roshto was the youngest of the men who died on the rig. Natalie, his widow, says that when it came time for a memorial service, she decided not to take their 3-year-old son, Blaine — so he wouldn’t have to “question why so many people were crying.”
And why there was no coffin.
“A cenotaph,” says Shelley Anderson. “A vocabulary word I learned from the governor of Texas ... When you put up a headstone, but there’s no actual body buried, it’s called a cenotaph.”
Second chance at love
Ten days after the explosion, Courtney Kemp and her family held a memorial service at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. As the people gathered, two pumpjacks in a pasture across the road worked up and down, methodically drawing the oil from beneath the soggy, deep-brown soil.
Roughneck Dustin Robertson was among the hundreds who came to pay their respects.
The day of the explosion, the father of two was working as a floor hand on BP’s Thunder Horse platform, about 30 miles from the Deepwater. Even from that distance, the flames shooting from the stricken rig lit up the horizon. The emergency suspended all production on the Thunder Horse; Robertson remembers it as the quietest day of his six years in the oilfield.
The next day, a helicopter carrying Robertson and other workers home stopped at a platform near the still burning Deepwater to drop off some emergency personnel. Robertson didn’t know Wyatt or the other men but he said a prayer for their souls. By the time they reached shore an hour later, word was that the Deepwater Horizon had sunk.
At the church, Robertson listened as family and friends talked about the man who loved to hunt and fish; who grilled “the best steak you’ll ever eat;” who read the Bible to his girls and listened to sermons on his MP3 player while he worked out on the rig. Caleb Holloway, the only member of the drilling crew to survive the blast, told of how, when he was lacing up his boots before a shift, Wyatt would sing Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five.”
Sitting there, Robertson knew how easily this could have been his funeral — that it could be his wife and daughters crying in that front pew. The young family would weigh on the roughneck’s heart as he headed back out into the Gulf.
Meanwhile, as the months passed, and the investigations and lawsuits dragged on, the words Wyatt had said on his last time at home kept echoing in Courtney’s mind: That she should find someone to love her, and to be a father to their two girls.
It had been more than a decade since she’d even thought about dating. She still wore the wedding ring Wyatt had slipped onto her finger nearly six years earlier.
“How am I supposed to start over?” she recalls asking her father. “How am I supposed to do this?”
She says she prayed, asking God to “send me the right guy.”
“And,” she says, “he did.”
In the months following the disaster, Robertson had done a lot of soul searching. He wanted to start a Bible study on his rig, and thought Wyatt’s story would make a powerful testimony.
Courtney agreed to write up a brief biography of her late husband. Then, in March 2011, Robertson asked her to join him for lunch so he could show her how he’d worked Wyatt’s story into his lesson plan.
They met at Jackie’s Riverside Restaurant on U.S. 84. When they parted, Robertson — who was separated from his wife — asked if he could call her from time to time; she said yes. He called later that afternoon and asked if he could take her out on a date that Saturday. Again, she said yes.
They drove all over Jonesville and down the road to Jena, Robertson’s hometown, forgetting even to stop to eat.
“We talked for hours,” she says. “And it was easy.”
The first time Robertson came to the house, Courtney had laid one of Wyatt’s photos face down. She didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable.
“You don’t have to do that,” he told her. “I know that he will always have a piece of your heart.”
After three months, Courtney told her father she thought “Dusti” was “the one.”
One day, Kaylee came to her mother, asking, “Mama, do you think it would be OK if I call Mr. Dusti ‘Daddy?’ ”
It took Courtney a moment to recover as she looked at the girl with her father’s pale blue eyes. “I really don’t think your daddy would mind,” she said.
Still, there was an issue facing the couple. The nightmares that had plagued Courtney since the Deepwater disaster continued. If Dusti called in the middle of the night, she immediately feared the worst. If they were going to be together, she concluded, he would have to leave the oilfield.
Robertson had been in the industry since he was 18. It was the only work he knew, and in these parts, you just can’t beat the money.
But he was in love. And, as he’s learned, sometimes “you just have to step out on faith and pray that everything will work out.”
Wheel of life turns
As with the currents of the Gulf, the wheel of life continues to turn for the survivors.
With each passing year, Arleen Weise feels as if she loses a little bit more of her son.
Two years ago, she finally sold the little house in Yorktown, Texas, that Adam had been so proud of buying. His other prize possession: A black, four-wheel-drive diesel pickup truck he’d dubbed “The Big Nasty.” She says, “It’s the kind of truck he always wanted, and he got it.” But it was more vehicle than she could handle, so she sold that, too.
“It’s just like every time you turn around, there’s something more of him gone,” she says.
That he died without issue pains her most, and yet she puts that in the perspective of what other Deepwater Horizon families are going through.
“I might be angry, had I had grandchildren that were not going to be raised to see what a wonderful person their dad was,” says Weise, who’s purchased a burial plot in Yorktown, next to Adam’s empty one. “You have to go on with life. And some, it’s probably harder for than others. His life is over, and that chapter’s closed.”
Gordon Jones’ family planted a live oak on the campus of his alma mater, Louisiana State University. It’s growing near the sorority where his wife, Michelle, was a member, along the path where he used to run.
He also loved to golf, and his older brother, Chris, takes his nephews out to hit balls as often as he can. “Another opportunity to do things that we know he would have wanted to do with his boys,” he says.
It was just two months after the explosion that one of the boys, Maxwell Gordon, was born.
Eilleen Jones, Gordon’s mother, says the loss of her child was devastating, of course. “But,” she adds, “my faith has saved me, and I just have to believe we’re where we’re supposed to be right now.”
Widow Sheila Clark says her 49-year-old husband Donald, whose nickname was “Duck,” was looking forward to being a grandfather. Earlier this year, the couple’s 23-year-old daughter, Tandrea, gave birth to a baby girl.
“He loved children,” his wife says. “We often talk about how much he would have enjoyed that, having a granddaughter.”
Donald Clark was an avid fisherman. And so, to mark the anniversary of his death, Sheila and her four children will go to a lake, say a prayer and release a bunch of balloons in his favorite color, sky blue.
Courtney Kemp and Dustin Robertson were wed on April 14, 2012 — just shy of two years after the disaster. Several of the other widows have also remarried.
The couple live in the spacious home Courtney and Wyatt built, where out by the road, a fading pink ribbon flutters from the mailbox — heralding the recent arrival of little Corbin Grace Robertson.
Wyatt is still very present. Photos of him with the girls sit on shelves and in bookcases. A miniature of a memorial statue erected at Transocean’s Houston headquarters stands on the family room mantel. A bronzed hard hat with Wyatt’s name on the brim sits in a glass box beside the dining room table.
A rubber wristband with the words “Deepwater Horizon” on the outside and Wyatt’s name on the inside was the “something blue” at Courtney’s and Dusti’s wedding. To the girls, Wyatt is simply “daddy in heaven.”
“Maddison will say, ‘Are you talking about that Daddy (pointing up) or THAT Daddy (pointing toward Robertson),” her mother says with a laugh.
Today, Robertson is a youth minister at the church where he first saw Courtney. He also helps her family with their crawfish farming business. The new man of the house is ever mindful that he is not there to replace Wyatt — nor could he.
“I just wanted to, I guess, fill what gap I could, and love them to the best of my ability,” he says. “He’s a part of this family.”
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AllenGBreed.